New MacBook Pro Observations

21Oct08

Picture 2.jpgBeing someone who has a fetish about notebooks, I was excited to see what Steve Jobs had in store for Apples line of portable Macs when he took to the stage on 14th October 2008. Rewinding to March 2003, and I was one of the first to pick up the 17 inch PowerBook. In its day it was a work of art. The pinnacle of laptop design. But its been five years and while the internal components have changed significantly (from a PowerPC to Intel architecture), the casing design and general aesthetic has changed little. It was high time for a refresh.

The day after the announcement I hopped on a train to London and visited the Apple Store on Regent Street where I picked up a new 15 inch MacBook Pro. I have been using it for 5 days now and feel I have learnt enough to share some of my feelings about the new hardware design.

Casing

Apple has placed great emphasis on the construction techniques used to manufacture the new MacBook Pros casing. During the announcement, Jonathan Ive (Apples Vice President of Industrial Design) made a rare appearance on stage to preach the virtues of the new aluminum ‘unibody’ which is produced by carving the casing as a single part from a solid block of aluminum. In doing so, Apple has hit a home run. The new casing is incredibly rigid, with a truly staggering fit and finish. The laptop itself will continue to look pristine many years after the internal components are obsolete. Make no mistake, this marks a new gold standard in laptop case construction and puts every other notebook I have come across (with the exception of the Macbook Air) to shame, including the previous generation MacBooks and MacBook Pros.

Trackpad

I have found the trackpad to be a true Jekyll and Hyde. The new glass surface is a true joy to work on. It provides just the right level of friction to ensure your finger glides to the desired spot accurately. I am sure it will also prevent the age old problem of the users finger polishing areas of the trackpad over time, which in turn should help boost resale value. A few commentators have reported that the glass surface is painted. This is not the case. The trackpad is constructed by laying a thin plane of etched transparent glass onto a metal base (which itself is the same color as the notebooks aluminum shell). This helps ensure that the glass is not cracked by heavy handed users whilst providing the illusion that the trackpad is the same color as the rest of the machine. Either way, your finger is in direct contact with the glass which leads me to wonder… If my finger cannot polish the glass trackpad over time, can the glass trackpad polish away my fingerprint?

The second innovative new feature of the redesigned trackpad is the complete absence of a separate button. For years people have bemoaned the absence of the right button found on PCs. In typical Steve Jobs fashion, Apple has given those complaining the middle finger and removed the one button they did have. Sort of.

Instead of having a separate trackpad and button, the redesigned trackpad is the button itself. The whole surface can be pushed down to register a click. For me at least, this has taken some getting used to. Firstly, the level of pressure needed to successfully click on something is not uniform. The trackpad is hinged at edge closest to the keyboard, so while it is easy to click in the bottom half of the pad, clicking in the top half requires a great deal of force. Secondly, compared with my previous MacBook Pro and my current MacBook Air, the click action requires more pressure and offers a very audible click which I find distracting. I am hoping this will resolve itself after a few months of use when the button mechanism has been broken in.

I have also run into problems because of the way my hand rests on the trackpad. I find the most natural poise for my hand is to rest my thumb on the button and then use my index finger for the majority of the trackpad work. But with no button at all my thumb naturally rests on the bottom third of the trackpad. This prevents me from successfully registering a click by tapping my index finger because the trackpad recognizes this as a two finger click. Very annoying. Nevertheless I have managed to retrain myself to use the trackpad differently over the past 5 days and this has become less of an issue as time has passed.

Display

The most controversial aspect of this refresh is the glossy display, or rather the lack of the previously available matte display. The new screens are adorned with a sheet of glass which stretches to the exterior edges of the black bezel that surrounds the LCD panel. This glass is extremely shiny and bumps up the level of glare even in comparison to recent glossy notebook screens sold by Apple (which had a plastic rather than glass coating on the screens surface itself).

This is a real deal breaker for some, especially if you belong to the print design community. As the MD of a graphics design studio I sympathize with the concerns over glare and reflections on the new glossy display. However, I have never found it to be much of a problem for me. In fact I tend to prefer the glossy display as it adds vibrancy to colour and produces deeper blacks. That said, my job role has morphed from a designer to a more conventional manager over the last few years so I tend to spend more time answering email and carrying out tasks within the browser than I do creating and editing artwork in Photoshop or Illustrator.

Putting aside concerns over glare and reflections, the 1440×900 panel is super bright and has a very wide viewing angle. It uses LED backlighting which is more energy efficient than the superseded cold cathode lamp backlighting and is not prone to yellowing or diminishing brightness following prolonged use. I do feel its time Apple stepped up the resolution of their screens a little but I cannot fault the quality of the panel itself.

While the lid assembly is thinner than previous models, it feels rigid and appears to have good torsional strength probably helped by the glass panel. It is worth noting that a black rubber bumper which runs around the entire perimeter of the display has replaced the tiny rubber stops of the older model. This is intended to ensure adequate clearance between the keyboard and screen when the lid is closed. However, sadly this is still not the case. The keys do still touch the display when the lid is closed. On older models this eventually caused permanent marks on the display. Whether this remains a problem with the new model is less clear. It maybe that the harder glass resists such markings more effectively. But as someone who has suffered this problem in the past I don’t intend on finding out. Instead I will be laying a microfiber cloth over the keyboard before closing the lid. As a side note, the hinge mechanism feels improved, with a more fluid feel than previous models.

Heat Dispersion

Older MacBook Pros were notorious for the heat they kicked out. On many occasions I have had to either stop using my older model or move it from my lap to a table because of the discomfort caused by the heat radiating from its underside. So how do the new MacBook Pros stack up?

While they can indeed still get quite warm, the heat is dispersed over a wider area probably as a result of the new aluminium unibody. In addition this machine is much quieter. In normal operation the fans are virtually silent (you have to press your ear against the machines only cooling vent running along the display hinge to hear them). But even when stressing the CPU the machine is significantly quieter than previous models. This seems to be achieved by using fans with more blades, allowing for adequate cooling at a lower RPM. Slower fans equal quieter fans.

Keyboard

Taking cues from the MacBook Air, the new Pro uses a chiclet style black keyboard. This seems to have polarized the mac community with many people complaining that the black keys are more visually jarring than the old silver keyboard which blended into the notebook casing. Personally I like the black keyboard. It brings back fond memories of my 2001 Titanium PowerBook.

While the keyboard may look a lot like the MacBook Air’s, it feels quite different. The travel of the keys themselves feel more in keeping with the old MacBook Pro design and less like the more ‘clicky’ action of Apples consumer line.

The backlighting of the keyboard is bright. Sometimes a little too bright. While the characters on the keys light up nicely, there is a lot of light spilling out from around the edge of each key. Coupled with the glossy screen which reflects the keyboard back at the user, the results can be a little distracting in very dark situations. Thankfully the backlighting can be toned down or turned off altogether.

These are my initial thoughts on the redesigned MacBook Pro hardware. I will endeavor to post about the machines performance once I have had an opportunity to really put it through its paces.

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6 Responses to “New MacBook Pro Observations”

  1. thanks for the review! been thinking if i should upgrade my machine… i’ll probably wait for the next version of the mbp.

    i was mainly looking forward to your comments about the screen since i’m into photography. nice to know that it’s vibrant and all. i think i have to see it for myself and try calibrating it to make sure i get the colors i want.

    some questions:

    as for the glare, is it really huge? how workable is the screen? what if you put a matte protector on it, will it help?

    btw, thanks for mentioning that the keyboard is not the same as the air. i love how the old mbp keyboard feels! 🙂

  2. I have not found the glare to be a huge issue. I tend to use it indoors (as the weather is not that great in the UK in October :)). But even in a well lit office I have found little cause to complain.

    I am not aware of any matte protectors specifically designed for the new MBP screens. However, I did hear that Radtech (http://www.radtech.us) are working on this. I am sure many other companies are doing the same.

  3. cool! in that case, i might as well consider it in the future! thanks a lot! 🙂

    did you try calibrating the monitor? how are the colors compared to the matte screens?

    btw, maybe powersupport (http://powersupportusa.com) will come out with a matte or anti-glare protector. i saw on their site before that they have one for the old mbp but i havent seen a new one yet… I use their anti-glare protector for my iphone and it works great!

  4. I haven’t tried to calibrate my display yet. I don’t spend too much time looking at color critical stuff these days. Purely based on observations by eye, I would say the reproducible gamut is wider on the new displays. There seems to be less banding on gradients. I have printed a couple of photos and the display profile out of the box seems to do a pretty good job of accurately representing the image to be printed.

    I suspect there will be many products to reduce glare on these screens. But I had enough problems getting a screen protector applied to my iPhone without bubbles. I anticipate applying one to a 15″ screen to be a tricky proposition.

  5. hahaha that’s true.. i am usually bad at putting screen protectors but surprisingly, the iphone protector from power support was so easy to apply! i didnt have any bubbles with me and put it on 2 iphones.

  6. Nice review!

    The glossy display is the one thing holding me back! As I work in ever-changing environments, the high-gloss brings too much risk that myself and my clients may be faced with too much glare & reflection.

    I’m hoping Apple announces a matte version in Q1.

    Cheers,
    Will


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